Does high-stakes accountability drive up standards?

Little did I know it then, but my journey into education started nearly 9 years ago as I was hunting for a new house. We needed more space and our budget was limited. I spent hours scouring the property listings, looking for an appropriate “fixer upper”. It had to have good transport links so my other half could commute easily to his office in central London. It had to be pleasing, or at least have the potential to be aesthetically pleasing. And of course, it had to be within the catchment of an outstanding school.

It felt like I had hit the jackpot when I found the house that was to become our house. It ticked all our boxes and more. I read the Ofsted report at least 3 or 4 times and could hardly believe our luck. It made the school sound like a nirvana. Everything about it was outstanding, and the house was a stone’s throw away! That glowing Ofsted report sealed the deal. We made an offer, it was accepted, and the rest was history.

A few years later, I sat at a presentation being given by the headteacher (sorry, now the executive headteacher) and listened to him wax lyrical about the “world-class education” at his school. I knew, of course, that it was a lie. A complete and utter lie. Ofsted had sold us a pup. Although things had started off well – his nursery teacher was fabulous – it had become clear, by the time my boy was in Year 3, that we were going to have to change school. And so we did.

My increasing involvement in matters educational yielded another result: I decided to become a teacher. Had my son’s educational journey gone smoothly, I doubt I would have even contemplated such a move. But there it is, one of life’s curve balls. I’m now 4 years into my career in education, which funnily enough has not gone smoothly either. I’ve worked in 6 schools, each one different from the other, in both primary and secondary, state and independent. I’ve had some enjoyable experiences, some terrible lows, and become a bit wiser in the process. I haven’t, contrary to statistical trends, walked away from the profession. I start work in my 7th school in January.

One question that keeps going round in my mind these days is this. Why is our school system so dysfunctional? Why is it sucking in and spitting out so many talented people? An exodus that has dramatically reduced the average age of teachers in the country. So much collective wisdom and expertise has been lost because a substantial number of teachers have decided, enough’s enough, and walked away from the profession (with a heavy heart I’m sure).

There are, of course, no easy answers to wicked problems such as this. It’s easy to point the finger at the government and blame austerity. It’s easy to blame workload and toxic leadership, or single out poor behaviour. And of course, it’s easy to blame Ofsted. We have a high-stakes accountability education system in this country, in which Ofsted plays a significant role. It has changed direction of late, focusing on curriculum rather than pedagogy. This new direction has been welcomed by some, particularly in the knowledge-rich camp. However, the high-stakes nature of it is still there, hanging like a spectre over us all.

I don’t know what it’s going to take to make schools better places for people to work and better places for our children to learn. I have reached the following conclusion though. I don’t believe high stakes accountability drives up standards. Fear will not help any of us improve at what we do. Conversely, some of the most successful school leaders I know of are people who don’t give a flying fig about Ofsted. They have the courage to run their schools according to their own vision, whatever that vision might be. From Katherine Birbalsingh at Michaela Community School to Matthew Evans who has written a book on leadership and blogs here, to this gem of a blog from Ed Finch, the common thread is a refusal to dance to Ofsted’s tune. Yet their schools still do well. Surely there’s a lesson to be learned there. If things are going to get better, it’s not going to be due to deep dives or intent statements. You can’t manage standards up from the top, with inspections as your blunt instrument. We’ve tried doing it for several years now, and it just doesn’t work. It always ends up creating perverse incentives.